Office for New Americans Paves the Way to Citizenship

July 1, 2015 Updated: July 14, 2015

NEWBURGH–If you were asked, “What is the ‘rule of law’?” you might respond with a blank stare. This is a question that might be asked in the exam for American citizenship, and an immigrant seeking citizenship must know the answer. 

The exam can be intimidating but the Office for New Americans ONA is there to help. Teaching U.S. history is one of the many services  (ONA) offers so immigrants can pass the test required for citizenship.  “We want to encourage people that the exam is doable,” says Shannon Kelly, associate director for Hudson Valley Services of Catholic Charities.

Jennifer Ramirez coordinates the state-sponsored program Office for New Americans, located at the Catholic Charities office in Newburgh, N.Y. Ramirez says ONA not only prepares immigrants for the citizenship exam, but also offers classes in English, and gives entrepreneurship seminars on a regular basis throughout the year for those who want to start a business.

New York has 4.2 million immigrants within its borders, and one in four New Yorkers of working age are foreign-born, according to the ONA website.

To accommodate this valued workforce, the Newburgh ONA provides outreach to tell immigrants how ONA can help. Flyers are left at a local neighborhood-based-opportunity center which houses many non-profit organizations used by immigrants. Ramirez also connects with local churches in the area and neighborhood businesses that serve Spanish-speaking residents.

ONA was set up to encourage and facilitate U.S. citizenship with legal assistance and counselors who coach clients on a one-to-one basis. Ramirez says it’s actually one-stop shopping for everything needed to attain citizenship. “They get their consultation and their application completed, hopefully, all in one day—something that usually takes 3 to 4 appointments.”

Jobs on Main Street

A recent report by the Fiscal Policy Institute and Council of the Americas states that immigrants have a big hand in keeping alive the main streets of cities because they are more likely to own grocery stores, restaurants, and other neighborhood services such as beauty shops and gas stations. Although immigrants make up 18 percent of business owners, they comprise 28 percent of main street businesses.

“These are businesses that don’t often get a lot of attention from economic development officials, and don’t have huge profits. But they play a big role in neighborhood revitalization, and they can be an important economic step up for the entrepreneurs,” said David Kallick, author of the report.

An amazing 31 percent of business owners in New York are immigrants, and immigrant business owners generate $12.6 billion in business revenue for the state, according to ONA.

ONA provides assistance in developing job skills through entrepreneurial seminars. Immigrants have a strong work ethic and want their own business. Ramirez says most of her family which emigrated from the Dominican Republic are business owners. “I see that in so many faces that walk in the door: they want to start the American dream. They don’t want to just come into this country and start working for someone else.”

The Challenge of English

Ramirez says a tough task for many immigrants is learning English. Jessica Lazo, migration counselor, is on staff to provide one-on-one coaching. In the entrepreneurship seminar, which is taught in English, Ramirez  will often assist without embarrassing anyone.

“A lot of people say, ‘I don’t understand English that well.’ So I say, ‘You go in there, and I’ll sit very close to you. If you, for whatever reason, don’t understand what’s going on, just look at me and I will give you the gist of it.”

Although a good number of immigrants hail from Spanish-speaking countries, Ramirez says ONA sees people from other countries including Russia, France, England, Uzbekistan, and the Ivory Coast.

Kelly says that “the wonderful part about this program is that the services Jennifer is able to coordinate here in Newburgh and throughout Orange County are really comprehensive.”

ONA encourages new citizens to volunteer. “If they want to tutor others, we would love to have that,” Kelly says.

Ramirez says the newly-minted Americans she has helped through the naturalization process let her know how much they appreciate their citizenship. “We actually have people call and cry from happiness.”

So, what is the rule of law? You’d be right if you answered “everyone must follow the law,” “leaders must obey the law,” “government must obey the law,” or “no one is above the law.”

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